Friday, February 19, 2010

Would You Like Some Tapes With Those Fries?

The old programmers club has been trading big fish stories down below. One of the strangest ones about data lost and found is that of the the tapes from the Lunar Oribiter missions. The story itself has cast off its own conspiracy theories, of which more later, but a good summary is found on the Los Angeles Times. It's not exactly a secret, there are lots of links on the web, but it remains interesting in the context of data archiving. A forerunner to Apollo, the 1966-7 missions carried two fairly large telescope and images were recorded on 70 mm film which was read out on-board and sent to a NASA data center. The images, including that of the Earth, that were obtained were unprecedented. Unfortunately the data center used a rare type of military tape drive that soon became unobtainable, which meant that the tapes were unreadable.

An archivist at NASA, Nancy Evans, saved the tapes from destruction about 15 years later

She talked her bosses at JPL into storing them in a lab warehouse. "I could not morally get rid of this stuff," said Evans, 71, in an interview at her Sun Valley home.

She had no idea what she was letting herself in for. The full collection of Lunar Orbiter data amounted to 2,500 tapes. Assembled on pallets, they constituted an imposing monolith 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 6 feet high.

This was an act of faith, because NASA had none of the 2 meter high (ever so SI we are here at Rabett Run) Ampex tape drives that were needed to read the tapes.

One day in the late 1980s, she got a call from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida: "We heard you're looking for FR-900s. We've got three of them. Where do you want us to send them?"

Having already stretched her bosses' goodwill at JPL by storing the tapes there, she reluctantly agreed to take the drives herself. Evans stored the three tape drives from Eglin and a fourth she got off a salvage list -- none of which worked -- in her own garage.

and there they sat. Over the years Evans kept applying for grants to repair the tape drives and read out the tapes to no avail. From Eli's personal experience on review panels, getting funding for archiving old data is neigh on impossible in the funding environment of the past forty years. Finally, in 2005, Evans gave a paper at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference which came to the attention of Dennis Wingo (yes, he comments on CA) and Keith Cowing. These two were able to raise some money, and get space at NASA Ames in an abandoned on base McDonalds. They also moved the tapes up from JPL. There, with the help of volunteers and Ken Zin, a NASA technician, who had worked with old tape drives they were able to salvage enough pieces from the drives to get one working (sometimes). Wingo has placed a slideshow on the web describing the project which is worth seeing.

This story has given rise to a number of INTERNET myths and amusing stories about the uses of Ebay for techno-archeology. There are some seriously crazy folk out there. Take care.



Anonymous said...

Great story, and I'm sure there's some analogy to be drawn between Nancy Evan's data difficulties and the whole "them scientists are hiding data!" shite that pervades the denialosphere these days.


P.s. I think you've got a superfluous "a" here:

"a two fairly large telescope"

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Since you mentioned the anti-christ...

Blog science has suffered a tremendous setback. It appears that Steve was not invited to play with the real scientists. Apparently his lack of a publication track record and any contribution to the field, which should have been plenty for anyone, was not enough for real scientists.

Little bitty Stevie, sittin' a tree, c-r-y-i-n-g. Boo hoo.

Anonymous said...

Nancy Evans ought to have some sort of special medal minted in her honor, and her colleagues in conservation should share it.

The particular spacecraft that obtained these images were wonderfully fanatical engineering artifacts,monuments to stubborn human ingenuity. For instance, film exposure methods included compensation for low ASA film required to account for radiation exposure itself while the photographic subject was sliding beneath the camera. Mechanical compensation was needed to slew the film while the shutter was open to account for low shutter speeds.

Then of course the film had to processed in the spacecraft prior to scanning...

Read about 'em at

Anonymous said...

MarkeyMouse says, more importantly: Richard Lindzen hits the Warmers for Six. Uses RealPlayer. I would advise downloading Real Alternative, which is free and doesn't muck up your system.

steven said...

thanks eli,

fans of wingo appreciate this

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Malarkey Mouse:

Spamming the same linkspam all over the web is lame.

EliRabett said...

Thanks to all for the fill ins. One of the good things about the internet is that people with information can bring it together.

BTW, although this was 70 mm film, processing on the fly was a well developed technology in the 60s. Dad Rabett used to operate a bunch of snapshot machines in arcades. Of course, he could go out and repair them if something failed...

EliRabett said...

Real Player is so 20th Century. When will they ever catch up.

dko said...

It's interesting that the image above was not published at the time. If it had been, the famous 1968 "Earthrise" image from Apollo 8 would have been notable primarily because it was in color.

Anonymous said...

Regarding processing, these machines ended up using a "dry" processing technique, another remarkable feat. Not -really- dry, but not involving liquids with free surfaces in drums etc. we humanoids were used to in darkrooms.